NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 18: A woman and her daughter count out Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) coupons, more commonly known as Food Stamps, while shoping for groceries in the GrowNYC Greenmarket in Union Square on September 18, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Opinion: Food banks provide food security as the front lines against hunger

Two of our nation’s most vital means for providing food security in the fight against hunger are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and food banks.  SNAP serves 47 million people and food banks provide food to 37 million Americans.

Recent cuts to SNAP funding took effect last November, and additional SNAP reductions are expected in the upcoming Farm Bill.  This, combined with a steady but slow economic recovery, has increased the demand for emergency food from food banks.

The ability for food banks to operate and for SNAP to obtain funding is critical for the 49 million Americans who are living in poverty and who are food insecure.

Our struggle to provide quality, nutritious food to all Americans is a complicated issue. To resolve issues of hunger and food insecurity, we must solve the underlying poverty and wealth inequities plaguing the nation. However, the definition of food security illustrates our broader challenges surrounding food and agriculture, and what role they play in our lives.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as the access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

You are likely food insecure if your neighborhood is saturated with fast-food drives and convenience stores. In fact, if the latter describes your experience, you live in a food desert, or a food swamp. Food desert dwellers struggle to find affordable, healthy food from a grocer, retailer, farmer’s market, or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Twenty three million Americans live in food deserts, according to the USDA. Food deserts occur when you must travel a mile or more in an urban area, or at least 10 miles in a rural area to access nutritious food.

There are 55 food deserts in Maricopa County of Arizona where our food bank resides. Moreover, we are a food desert within the desert.

Food banks are on the front lines of combating hunger in this country. Most major food banks belong to the Feeding America network, a national association that altogether distributes 3 billion pounds of food each year. Nevertheless, that figure is still far from bridging the hunger gap.

Significant decreases in SNAP funding adds more pressure to food banks like ours, that can only meet half of our community’s needs. Additionally, a combined decline in food bank donations amidst charity fatigue, higher food and gasoline costs, and post-recession economic uncertainty magnify the strain.

To get involved with your local food bank, even the smallest gesture goes a long way. You can volunteer, coordinate a fund or food drive, make a donation, join our social media pages, attend our events, become a board member, visit our office to say hello, or connect us to positive individuals and organizations who might be thrilled to collaborate and partner with us.

Here in Arizona, we recently joined the Phoenix American Youth Football Association (AYF) and the Snoop Dogg Youth Football League All-Stars for a fun Jingle Bowl football game. The effort collected over a ton of donated food while we shared the message to children and families about childhood hunger and the value of healthy food and physical activity. This effort simply occurred because Phoenix AYF and Coach Snoop are committed to helping our youth and reached out.

We are now embarking upon a partnership to continue this effort. Our priority is to work together with a sense of urgency as Arizona ranks as one of the worst states for childhood hunger.

In all, food banks make the difference each and every day. We provide an approachable, immediate means for the 37 million Americans who rely upon food help when they need it the most. If we can all pitch in and get involved, then maybe one day, we might build such strong, sustainable, healthy communities that we might not even need food banks after all.

Lisa Pino is President and CEO of the United Food Bank of Arizona. Most recently, she was the Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Former Deputy Administrator of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. She served USDA from 2009-2013 upon her appointment to both roles by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Pino is an attorney and New York native who has dedicated her life to public service. 

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